Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Examination of the Courtier's Reply

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy that should look rather familiar to you, a young PZ Myers gave unto the world a label for a certain kind of argument that was hence forth known as a "Courtier's Reply". And there was much rejoicing. But, since it only functions as a label, it is important to know what errors, if any, are involved in the argument that fits the criteria and whether being a "Courtier's Reply" is sufficient grounds to question it. First, here is the little scenario that the Reply describes:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

Okay, first things first: the elements of the argument.
  • Questions the scholarship of the person receiving the Reply due to their (seeming) lack of familiarity with specific authors.
  • Mentions the prevalence and mainstream acceptance of the thing that the person being Replied to himself argued against.
  • Suggests that there is something bad about the person being spoken of entirely due to the latter two qualities.
  • Avoids addressing "the substance" of arguments (in the case of the example above, by the very admission of the Replier), and instead focused on lack of [insert positive trait not actually associated with the truth of the argument here].
  • Asserts or implies that high credentials are needed in order to make judgments about a certain subject. Presumably, this is only noteworthy if it is 1. a subject matter on which almost all people are deemed capable of making informed judgments regardless of credentials and 2. the information that they are suggesting that you acquire in the process of gaining these credentials are irrelevant to the larger issue (i.e. learning about how something works in principle when the question at hand is whether it works at all in reality).
So, what is the Courtier's Reply? In essence, it is one big ad hominem. And not an irreducibly complex one either: almost any combination of the bullet points above result in the same, general form of argument. Note that it is not an ad hominem because it is particularly mean or vicious inherently, but because it attempts to dismiss an argument solely on the grounds of perceived faults in the author of the original argument, rather than due to faults of the original argument. The criticisms may be reasonable and entirely due to the shoddy nature of the argument responded to (see here for cases where insults are not ad hominem arguments). But, without showing why this might be the case and instead posing something that amounts to a series of character attacks as an argument, it becomes difficult to believe that the Reply is a logical rebuttal. It doesn't help that the Reply, as a whole, is a complicated mish-mash of problems.

A step by step:
  • Questioning scholarship is fine when you can show where, specifically, their work fell short. But, the insistence that one should be familiar with the specific writings of an individual in order to even make an argument, save in situations where you are specifically commenting on those writings in particular, seems to be inching into appeal to authority territory. Which serves as a nice transition to the other aspects of the argument, incidentally.
  • The discussion of the popular acceptance of a certain idea or ideology as indicative of the accuracy of that idea or ideology is an argumentum ad populum.
  • The implication that, in the written scenario, Dawkins is bad in some way due to being uninformed by authoritative sources and due to disputing a mainstream view, is the first part of the ad hominem, in addition to the larger overriding theme of presumed ignorance, obstensibly proven in the previous two parts. It is an attempt to show the author as untrustworthy or unreliable. Which, wouldn't be a problem (assuming that they pulled it off using logical arguments). Unfortunately....
  • ....the ad hominem argument is completed in its full fallacious glory when the substance of the argument is intentionally ignored in lieu of simply insinuating that their arguments must be wrong due to the previously established negative traits.
  • The final and most distinctive part of the Reply is the declaration that one needs to meet certain academic qualifications in order to successfully make statements on a subject. This is an interesting case of an argument from authority. Normally, an argument from authority is that a person is correct because they are authoritative. In this case, however, it is implied that you cannot even be correct unless you are authoritative. This statement seems to get credence from the fact that in discussions relevant to science, people are regularly told that they need to have X level of a qualification in order to make a certain statement for certain. In this case, qualification means that you are more likely to be correct about a relevant subject matter, but is not a guarantee, just as lack of qualification is not a guarantee of ignorance, nor ignorance a guarantee of being incorrect (lucky guesses, ya know?). And, in order to have the ability to make an argument that will have relevance to the scientific community, you need to have sufficient credentials in order to yourself have relevance within the scientific community. These things should not have any bearing on actual arguments outside of that setting, however, and suggesting that someone is wrong due to lack of "authority" rather than due to actually having said something that is incorrect is fallacious still.
But, be careful with addressing a Courtier's Reply: the way that Myers' originally phrased it is a rebuke of the field of theology. The suggestion is that theology is not to be held on par with other
fields of study when it comes to these sorts of "Replies", due to the irrelevance of the bulk of theology to those who do not first accept the premise that God exists (among many others), which requires much more discussion to effectively establish without approaching that debate in the same manner that presuppositionalist apologetics approach the question of God's existence. The Replies themselves are what need to be addressed, because they are a verbiose form of a particularly interesting form of ad hominem that takes the form of "you don't understand".

Now, stating that someone else does not understand is fine, if you can show what they failed to understand before or after making such a statement. But, stating that as the entirety of a supposed rebuttal is not only an unhelpful insult, rather than an argument of any form, but it is also impossible to argue against, cleverly enough. Without pointing out the specific areas in which a person's understanding has failed, there is nothing for the person who "doesn't understand" to rebut and no means to correct their supposed errors (or indicate that they in fact do understand, and either the other person is mistaken, or the original did not express themselves effectively). Without anything more to actually address the argument it supposedly rebuts, it ends a discussion, because the person who accepts that they "do not understand" without specific errors pointed out cannot reasonably continue a discussion on the subject matter without those unknown errors being specified (since he must essentially accept that he is in error about everything mentioned thus far). Luckily, the Courtier's Reply does add more onto this basic argument, but only in the form of suggesting that one corrects their lack of understanding through years of education in a broad field and reading of specific texts, ending the discussion in a similar manner by leaving the person who accepts this declaration that they are ignorant on the subject only able to rectify the situation through days of reading and/or years of study. It is not only an insult used in place of an actual substantial argument, but it is also a tacit attempt to brush off the person that the Reply is for.

In short, in its purest form, the Courtier's Reply is a fallacious argument in many ways and an almost calculated attempt to stop any dialogue at all. It is something to avoid at all costs.


Stacy said...

I don't understand! ;-)

mac said...

So this Dawkins fella is saying the Emperor is naked?

I was never a big fan of silk undies either. I prefer to go cammando......

Now I know what a Courtier's Reply is, thanks.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

One for your archives Seeker. You could however have named your post, "a description of the Republican Political platform... or Fox news...

Anonymous said...

"One for your archives Seeker. You could however have named your post, "a description of the Republican Political platform... or Fox news..."

Or NPR, or MSNBC for that matter. Nice D'Souza Pliny.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Sorry OneBlood - I respect a lot of your commentary but do you really want to compare NPR to Fox? Come on. Call me D'Souza for pointing out the bankruptcy of ideas that passes as conservatism these days? Sorry but I listen to what they are saying and I think they depend heavily on the tactics described in this post.

Unless the Republican leadership starts doing more than simply slinging mud at Obama and digging in their heals to stop anything he proposes, they are never going to appeal to people outside of a narrow wedge base.

The best way for that to happen is for them to start worrying less about tactics and a lot more about truth. Such as the truth of their part in the mess in which we find ourselves.

Anonymous said...


I know you didn't mention them in your reply but I'll address MSNBC first. I like Rachel Maddow a lot. Frankly, she makes me giggle despite my opinions. But is she biased in reporting? Yes.

I am unsurprised you don't see NPR's bias, either at all or on the same level as FOX.

In a tip of the hat to modern day liberalism. NPR does their bias in a more intelligent way...but it's still heavy.

My opinion:

FOX news - The angry drunk at the bar.
NPR - The prof on a soapbox.

Basically a lot of sneering. Mix in some truth and hire a producer.

Anonymous said...

This does remind me of an exchange with a Spanish professor.

I commented, "Sean Hannity podria ser pendejo."

He said, "No, Sean Hannity es pendejo."

I assume you would agree with him. ;-)

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

One Blood. Modern Media is in a shambles no doubt. I think the difference is that I have
heard truth spoken on NPR and I don't recall that happening on Fox except by happenstance. Going back I guess to pboy's post, from my POV a lot of what NPR airs is an attempt at enlightened debate. I don't see that from Fox. And it's not because I have never seen it from the right.

I was never a great fan of WF Buckley, (I thought he was a snobbish p----, but an extremely smart, thoughtful and well read snobbish p----) But his positions could not be dismissed out of hand. They had to be debated on merit and with great care.

Carl rove slinging feces as is his method, is a poor substitute. And Sara Palin, well, I would hope the Republicans could do a lot better.

The point still remains (ironic to this post) that distraction has replaced substance from much of what passes fro conservatism.

Anonymous said...

"The point still remains (ironic to this post) that distraction has replaced substance from much of what passes fro conservatism."

Point well made.

Seekers post reminded me that when it comes to debates about religion, I've seen some end up in smaller areas where the unbeliever doesn't have any expertise.

It's needless because the unbeliever has the most important point of all. That is, "Prove it." But in a debate, or personal discussion the unbeliever will discredit him or herself through cultural assumptions or hearsay about some part of the bible.

But the believer has no authority, none, to dismiss the larger claim of the unbeliever...

I don't know, we've all been there. You get upset and you want to make those little jabs that say, "A ha! I am superior." And it's all pretty much downhill from there.


By the way, thanks for pointing out the irony Pliny, it's nice to be humbled.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...


Seeker's post points out something of which we are all guilty from time to time (even Pliny ;) - Guilt or ire by association and conversely merit by association with an unholy mix of generalization. That tends to make us see bigger warts on our opponent's arguments and none on our own side of the debate. Both are destructive influences.

Which leads me to a point that I have been trying to make quite inarticulately. Conservatism is not something to which I inherently object. True conservatism has been and remains a viable world view. A truly liberal and truly conservative assessment of issues is needed to achieve balance and the the kind of moderation that results in long-term solutions. My concern is that What gets associated with conservatism today ain't my father's (or Barry Goldwaters for that matter) kind of caution, fiscal responsibility, and discomfort with government.

And Yes I know I have my narrow areas- I suppose that even if Gandi showed up on Fox I'd be suspicious -particularly Gandi, it would mean that the neocons had perfected cloning of the dead and that would probably be a prelude to Nixon II...

Anonymous said...

You blew my mind Pliny, if the book of Revelation were true could Nixon II be the anti-christ?

Maybe just the Anti-nice with Palin as vp.

"Run! It's the Anti-nice and the Bore of Babylon."